Tag Archives: Dustin Cable

Mapping the Expanse of our Health Care Debacle

Has racism reared its ugly head in the debate over healthcare?  Dr. Atul Gawande likened attempts of conservatives to reject health care exchanges as “advice that no responsible parent would ever give to a child.”  For it seems a deeply obstructionist tactic that recalls in so many senses the resistance to integrating schools after Brown v. Board of Education under the misnomer “freedom of choice.”  Gawande noted with real disbelief that courts had to intervene to prevent such retroactive obstructions, much as the Voting Rights Act had been designed to allow courts to intervene in obstructions of the right to vote in similar regions.  While Gawande was not alone in finding that the mantra “defund Obamacare” tsponsored by “almost exclusively white members”  elected to represent “bright red districts” to be fueled by racist hatred or be a cover for deeply racist fears, or be a cover for the sense that poorer parts of the society should not be covered by the wealthier, or by the middle class–and a deep dissatisfaction of the apparent redistribution of wealth that this created, as if this constituted an unwanted interference of the government in individual choice.

Not only do we live in a landscape of quite jarring disproportions of health-care and access to health providers, but of deeply disturbing shifts in life expectancies, that undoubtedly are influenced by a truly terrifyingly inequality in access to health care–which may offer the sort of data visualization from which to begin debate on health care.


Inequalities in Life Expectancy among US Counties, 1980 to 2010/Dwyer-Lindgren, Bertozzi-Villa, Stubbs, et al./FiveThirtyEight

Filtered by a color ramp that less sharply conveys sharp ruptures, the inequities between in life expectancy among individual counties suggests some quite sharp differences that are apparent in the landscape whose populations we may have decided that we’re less interested in working to ensure of up to a decade:

YEars diff Life Exp.pngFiveThirtyEight

The sharper and perhaps more surprising decline of women’s life expectancy during the decade between 1997 and 2007–the first time of such widespread setbacks in longevity in recent memory–betrays a shockingly similar concentration throughout Oklahoma and Kentucky and West Virginia, as well as Nevada, that mirrors the discontinuity in life expectancy nation-wide to the above snapshot, in ways that might suggest a health crisis, and may well mirror the doubling of those classified as obese between 1980 and 2010–and something as simple as widespread dietary change, as well as habits like smoking, contributing to high blood pressure and obesity in an almost national epidemic.  The dismay with which Dr. Christopher Murray, direction of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, noted in 2011 that “there are just lots of places where things are getting worse” seems echoed in the infographics above and below, where the sharp discrepancies of an unexpected decline in health and life expectancy mirrors the increasing inequality and economic divide in America, in ways that seem to distinguish the United States, according to the chair of a 2011 National Academies panel on life expectancies, unlike other countries, that effectively pegs health care to income levels.  The decline of life expectancies in Appalachia and the Deep South is not, perhaps, surprising, but speaks to a bizarre division of the nation, especially as many welathier coastal areas in California and the Northeast, as well as Florida, have seen a rise in life expectancy of both women and men.

Life expectandy for women 1987-2007.png

The absence of similar geographic disparities in life expectancy on a very local if not granular level is absent from Great Britain, Canada and Japan, but suggests the growing demographics of inequity that threaten to be only reinforced by the absence of a comprehensive plan for national health care.  It is a terrifying truth that the majority of poor uninsured reside in 114 of 3,000 counties in the nation, of which 52–just under half–have actually adopted or imposed increasing obstacles to access to adequate national health care for their residents as an unwanted federal intervention.

Such discrepancies are not new, and are readily visible in the US Census, a precious record of national discrepancies and continuities that is now increasingly important to determine the allocation of public resources.  But they were strikingly similar in 2012, in ways deserving to send a shock through the nation because of the inequities it exposed:

Life.jpgKelly Johnston, University of Virginia Library  Scholars’ Lab (2011)


The historical decline in life expectancies particularly among rural America–a region that even when adjusted for race shows a huge historical divide that demands drilling down very deeply, as it cannot be reduced to a single cause.


LifeExpectancyMapsThe New York Times


Given the extent of these painful discrepancies, it is telling that almost half of the counties with uninsured populations lie in states that have not accepted the expansion of health care under the Affordable Care Act:  from Texas to South Carolina, state legislatures have created obstacles to its adoption or implementation, rejecting funds needed to expand Medicaid programs–as have twenty-five states–or even to sponsor health exchanges in their states to make programs available as options for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act.  Both such runarounds do disservice to their populations, as are the attempts of other states to limit the possibilities of access to health-care “navigators” who assist people with enrolling at local health-care centers:  states have independently set up obstacles mandating criminal background checks, fees, exams, or additional course work to sabotage folks from selecting health insurance, and in so doing perversely perpetuate the gaping pockets of inequalities in the current status quo which a map divided by the percentage of populations receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP)–one important indexed of the uninsured–reveals.

SNAP map

The divides within the southern states of America, where a consistently large proportion of the numbers of uninsured reside, suggests something link a deep valley deeply entrenched within the national landscape but rarely appreciated or explicitly mapped.  When Sabrina Tavernise and Robet Gebeloff examined the results by mapping the refusal to accept an expansion of insurance or even Medicaid against census numbers of poor and uninsured in The New York Times; the coincidence between lack of insurance with refusals of government funds for health care was so frightening that it merited a follow-up editorial on the injustice of blocking health reform–asking how we can accept placing at risk the most vulnerable in our society, including uninsured single mothers, children living below the poverty line, and uninsured low-wage earners, according to data also coming from the Kaiser Foundation.

The interactive four-color map used estimates provided by the 2011 Census Bureau‘s  American Community Survey to reveal how the twenty-six states refusing federal funds (through Medicaid or assistance to buy policies) are also distinguished by terrifyingly high levels of poor or uninsured:

% Uninsured in States Saying No

legend- Poor and Uninsured Americans

As the Times noted, this includes all the Deep South save Arkansas.  The twenty-six states, whose governors or legislatures have intentionally hampered the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, have seceded from federal health care reform, by taking advantage of the Supreme Court’s decision that the expansion of health reform was optional, and not able to be federally mandated.

It scarily mirrors the states whose populations of uninsured exceed 8% of their total populations, or where suffering from poverty and inadequate heath care is most intense:

8% poor and uninsured

legend- Poor and Uninsured Americans

To be sure, much of the arguments against the ACA are rooted in the fear that the act will be a nail in the coffin of the United States as we know it and lead to an insurmountable increase of national debt:  but the paranoiac fear that its perpetration is so short-sighted that it is intended to prevent a return to smaller government has deeper roots.

The depth of local opposition to the ACA follows a deeply disturbing map of national disparities.  Indeed, the refusal to implement the law reflects disturbing ties to the sort of census data on large numbers of African American populations, if one compares the distribution of this refusal to the one-to-one mapping of our population provided in the “Racial Dot Map” designed by the statistical demographer Dustin Cable, who used data of racial populations across national census blocks as measured in the 2010 Census to provide a “snapshot” of the national population.  The map assigns each inhabitant a single dot, colored by a collapsed category of racial self-identification.  Mapping the same data on racial classification alone, using a more simplified classification of racial identity than the census itself, reveals an eery echo of deep segregation among those regions rebuffing the plan for national health care:
SouthWest Dot Map with Names

The disturbing nature of this coincidence, while not measuring to poverty or to low wage earnings, reveal a scary image of the very regions that are ready to spurn federal assistance for the uninsured members of their populations.

Indeed, a focus on the Deep South in Cable’s map, here presented with place-names to render it more legible, reminds us of the relatively clear boundaries in many of these regions among areas which are populated by “whites” or by “Blacks” and “Hispanics”, and a focus on the Deep South reveals the striking nature of the lack of integration in counties that single-mindedly stubbornly refused to expand health care.
Dot Map in the South

There are, to be sure, serious criticisms that can be leveled against the categories retained by the census or instantiated within Cable’s map.  But the  esthetically appealing rendering of census data in the Racial Dot Map reveals some deep divides in our nation’s fabric which may well lie at the heart of the refusal of accepting a mandate for health insurance, even though the refusal is regularly framed as an issue of states’ rights or resistance to federally imposed exchanges of health care.

Indeed, even when stripped of place-names, the distributions that the demographer Cable extracted from the data in 2010 Census blocks creates something of a graphic counter-prompt to the assertion of states’ rights that justifies for such recalcitrant and obstructionist refusing to expand health care:

SouthWest Racial Dot

Although the Racial Dot Map is not an exact tool, and randomly redistributes an average of individual color points within census blocks, we might compare the gross level of integration, which only generalize racial characteristics of a population, to urban areas on the Eastern seaboard:

Eastern Seabord and MD Dot Map

While gross data, and hardly refined as an image of how we live, the contrast with the clearly segregated boundaries of isolated cities suggest a topography of not only racial, but social distancing, and one in which one might imagine anger directed toward the devotion of federal monies to those in need.

Of course, the story is not all bad–even if the crafty recalcitrance of these twenty-six states threatens to erode its ability to reach the most needy among us.  For the profiles of counties within states that have accepted the expansion of course contain uninsured who can be expected to benefit greatly from it–most notably in Arkansas, the one state in the Deep South to accept the ACA–and New Mexico, as well as the more rural areas of California’s central valley, rural Virginia, and the Northwest.

% poor and uninsured in state accepting expansion
legend- Poor and Uninsured Americans

The government shutdown from the start of the fiscal year has prevented many Americans from enrolling for health care online, as was long expected to be possible.  Many will, as a result, rely on filling out paper long forms when seeking to enroll in the program most suitable to them.  But the government shutdown may be a smokescreen meant to cover the obstructionism that the expansion of healthcare, as well as a tactic to delay its final implementation–both since the attention to shutdown has absorbed the 24 hour news cycle, and detracts attention from obstacles to the ACA’s effective implementation.  The shutdown seems to appeal not only as a stunt, but as a final line of resistance to providing universal health care, for a contingent convinced that it will be actually impossible to repeal “Obamacare” once it is enacted and goes into effect.

The mean-spirited nature of this obstructionism is revealed once one examines who will be hurt by a refusal to put the ACA into full effect.  Indeed, a  state-by-state examination of the distribution of non-elderly uninsured across the nation offers a somewhat terrifying profile of troughs of national inequities with which we have yet to contend.  Take, for example, the deep pockets of an absence of insurance among populations in South Carolina:

South Carolina

Or, even more scarily, perhaps, the deep trough in much of central Florida and the panhandle:


While the entire state suggests a massive picture of uninsured, the central region is dominated by huge numbers of uninsured, which the governor stubbornly refuses federal insurance:

Central Florida

An even more grave disparity of access to health care is revealed in Alabama as a belt across its more rural areas:

Alabama's Belt

The divisions in Arkansas are almost a belt around Little Rock:


Or a dismaying divide within the rural areas of Georgia, where Atlanta seems something like an island of access to insurance only in its best neighborhoods, but swamp-like regions of uninsured spread out at its northwest and southeastern edges:


And, in a particularly terrifyingly unethical mosaic, the disparities between rural and urban Texas appear particularly strikingly stark, and reveal a deeply historical artifact of income disparities and economic livelihoods across the state:


One could continue almost ad infinitum, covering the ground of the United States as if it were a map coextensive with the nation, but one doesn’t have to struggle much to grasp the depth of disparities and the dangerousness of perpetuating such deep divides in access to adequate health care.

When one speaks of two nations in America, divides between red states and blue states mask the depth of divisions between the uninsured and insured, and reveal the increasing difficulty of the blindness of one population to the other.  Discounting populations whose lack of adequate health insurance is, in essence, naturalized as part of the status quo may provide the clearest illustration of the persistence of racism in America.


Filed under data visualization, Deep South, national health plan, public health, Voting Rights Act

Oakland Represented Variously: What We See When We Map Oakland’s Inhabitants

The range of ‘open’ online data that is available for a city such as San Francisco showcases the city’s clear definition of a public space.  Although there are plenty of spaces of local meaning and importance in Oakland, from the site of Occupy near the mayor’s office to nearby Chinatown and Lake Merritt, or from Fruitvale Station to west Oakland urban farms and on to Alameda, the fragmented nature of public space is difficult to map coherently.

When it comes to public space, the East Bay and Oakland–despite a rich variety of parks, an estuary, and increasing vitality of Jack London Square–is a polycentric sprawl, its former downtown interrupted by freeways, and open boulevards dotted with closed commercial centers, beauty supply zones, or dense interchanges.  This is in part due to how little the diverse areas and neighborhoods of the city know themselves.  How to map the inhabitants of Oakland, CA, given the considerable diversity across neighborhoods?  Does it exist as a unified social space, or what image of the city emerges?  By looking at some of the census maps of the city, and mining the range of information compiled in them by displaying their data in mapped form, we can process and digest the complexly variegated nature to view its population’s profile.  (Indeed, the problems of politically representing the complex composition of a somewhat divided city were revealed in the most recent mayoral election of 2014.)

The sprawling city challenges the abilities of the social cartographer as much as the post-modern space of Los Angeles, even in this real-estate view.  Maps of any scale organize social space by relevance, preparing a selective record of its inhabitation and revealing networks for ready consultation.  Maps of any scale create a simulacrum or construct of social reality, as much as simply orient their readers:  the city’s salient features highlighted and network of organization explained, omitting other spaces and residents. We might start by acknowledging how the below bird’s-eye view of Oakland from c. 1900, of unknown origin, celebrating the city’s settlement and early Bay Area Real Estate:  the engraving showcases an open urban grid as an area becoming future realtors to its shores:  if mostly green and largely uninhabited, presents a prospective view of the city-port as a commercial center, showcasing notable houses of prosperous residents that distinguished Oakland’s built environment, and beckoning viewers to its estuary and the man-made shores of its new Lake as if to shift our attention from the city of San Francisco.

Oakland 1900

Elevated or “bird’s eye” views praising urban identity and architecture such as this anonymous print had a long tradition.  Such imagined constructions that gained currency as encomiastic forms, often complemented by poetic paens to their social harmony.  If the artist who engraved and designed the elevated map is not known, the presentation of the city’s growing physical plant and street structure echoed the architectural elegance of earlier urban views, as the visual encomia to the elegance of architectonic form of Venice in the virtuosic perspective designed by Jacopo de’ Barbari circa 1500 of his own creation.  De’ Barbari exploited skills of perspective to craft a graphic and pictorial encomia to his native city’s architecture and burgeoning wealth to trumpet its social distinction; an earlier elevated view of Florence, sold by the cartographer and engraver Francesco Rosselli similarly celebrated and displayed the architecture of his native city.  De Barbari famously employed to evoke the harmonious order of his city, also lying in close proximity to surrounding wetlands, by displaying its distinctive harmony–vaunting its delicate socio-political balance figuratively by deploying his mastery of creating a previously unimaginable perspective to considerable effect, showing the density of its architecture in the watery surroundings.


Even if much of present Oakland seems a bit of a blank slate, whose territory expands from its port and the man-made lake built to beautify its urban estuary, the print of c. 1900 divides plots and settled acreage, as the surrounding images of buildings that testify.  This is not only a pictorial space, but an attempt–as the Rosselli and de’ Barbari maps–to show the social space as harmoniously mapped to a pictorial space of representation, and distinguish the city as a microcosm of the world.  Both maps offer  sophisticated visual glosses on the ancient notion of a “chorography” or qualitative view of a community, elegantly overlaying and equating their imaginary perspectival space with he social spaces of each city.

Can we create a modern chorography of Oakland that both displays and comprehends its dynamic heterogeneity, or would the city split into social divides?  Google Maps clearly fails to do so, but what would a comparable mapping of Oakland’s populations look like, perhaps mapped from the ground up–in the manner that Jacopo labored to achieve?

OAK Topographical

There was clear redlining of much of the East Bay’s residential areas in real estate maps for the East Bay cities dating from the Depression, in which Home Owners Loan Corporation rated neighborhoods for the refinancing of mortgages  that amounts to a reflection of the value of property in the East Bay, and reveal an odd mosaic of the city that privileged some regions, but also include a clear redlining of those regions by the Bay and the main arteries of transportation that continue to define Oakland’s port.  The red-lining of the city’s residential areas in the New Deal structured the city’s social geography in  imaginary construction ofways that reflect the continued exclusion of African Americans and blacks from the market of legitimate home mortgage in much of America through the 1960s, described so compellingly by Ta- Nehisi Coates, and in Oakland not only reflect the deep divides in residential ownership but created social disparities but record scars that make the city’s future harmony particularly difficult to re-imagine.  The zones of imbalanced opportunities for home ownership that long existed in the city created perpetuated deep social divides among its residents, often left without the chances of refinancing that were available to many other residents from the 1930s in the United States, as its port and low-lying areas became victims to a classic image of “blight” with roots in its deep abandonment by the public good in ways not yet overcome.


From the first settling after the San Francisco earthquake of the Oakland hills, the demographic divides Oakland’s settlement seem to have been reflected in the value of residential ownership in its neighborhoods in ways revealed in the fractures lines of the map of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, and which have continued to divide its neighborhoods even after a period of urban growth.  The absence of clear neighborhoods or community organizations around the major traffic arteries that Oakland has long been defined by at its port and older shipping canals created something like a social divide not only in this early HOLC map, but that has been perpetuated within the socioeconomic divisions that were so starkly reflected in the “red-lining” of urban real estate.

Redlining By the Shore

Even if Oakland has been billed a “livable city,” the “split personality” is revealed in the divides starkly illuminated by a map of social lifestyles generated by an ESRI tapestry charting dominant lifestyles–purple noting High Society; blue “upscale avenues;” teal “Metropolis;” light bright blue “metro trendsetters;” green “seniors;” and tan and brown “inner city,” “highrise,” or “up and coming.”

The map shows the city’s split personality:

esri dominant lifestyle est bay

In a year that boasted crowd-sourced mapping of the San Francisco Bay, organizing the demographic divides that continue to shape Oakland deserves our sustained attention–and the varieties of viewing the divisions and distributions in the settlement of Oakland’s space.  Unlike San Francisco, dominated by some 359 skyscrapers in its downtown and other regions, Oakland is far more geographically disperse and diffuse, with only a small number of buildings over fifty meters all clustered by Lake Merritt–including those noted in blue, under consideration or construction.
Skyscrapers in Oakland-  50 meters

The recent ambitious and brave investment intended to equalize these clear socioeconomic divisions and to prevent them from being perpetuated by public services from schooling to economic opportunity is a step in the right direction and, based on a back-of-the-envelop calculation, seems to have its priorities and direction of resources fairly straight in how it has decided to invest in Oakland’s neighborhoods’ futures.

OaklandOpportunityImpactOverview-1024x663Distribution of San Francisco Foundation’s Investment in Oakland

But how to frame and orient the viewer of a map of the city’s demographic divisions is fraught, given the difficulty of uniting Oakland as a whole, or even in abstracting an analogously unified image that connects its disparate inhabitants.  The network that bounds the city was advanced rather optimistically in a map that elegantly promoted the lost or abandoned system of Key Cars whose web linked downtown Oakland to the Temescal and Alameda–the infrastructure for the local economy that it did up until its complete dismantling by 1959.

Map of Oakland and Vicinity- Key Car System

The serviced networks that any map foregrounds, even one of transit routes, engage their readers by networks of inter-relationships.   The above map affirms a network of transportation for their rider, suggesting the ways that the infrastructure by which the Key-Car systems united downtown Oakland and the vicinity–much in the manner current BART maps promise to link everywhere in the East Bay in a radius to Point Richmond, Brentwood, and San Jose.  The current BART network may link the Bay Area, indeed, as Oakland seems to be forsaken as being the economic it was by transit authorities and Bay Area residents.

But Oakland is also a city whose social space was long both divided and eviscerated, as the network of streetcar transit was dismantled, the railroad stations that centered the town from the 1880s declined or closed, preparing for the razing of the West Oakland residences of many porters for the MacArthur maze, long before the collapse of the I-880 Cypress Freeway in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake–and the subsequent massive shifts in home-ownership as a large number of houses went underwater after 2007 led to a wave of foreclosures that was almost distributed across the city, and which redefined its social space once again.


The divides and diversity in Oakland make the mapping of the city of particular interest as tools to understand its social reality.  In a society where we are regularly mapped and surrounded by maps, the critical of reading maps is recognized as an important tool to negotiate and mediate lived social space.  What sorts of divides and continuities emerge in a city like Oakland, historically defined by considerable racial diversity and income disparity?  How to map so many variations in one place?

When Denis Wood and John Fels described the map as an ideological construction of space or territory, they took time to examine the surrounding ‘paratext’ to maps as keys or markers that revealed the ideological construction of the space within the “nature” of the map, created by interpretive legends and iconography, as well as the semiotic conventions of the map itself:  yet interactive urban maps provide much more of a creative cartographical conventions and treat the map as something like an open text.

In their critical examination of the authority inherent in the medium of the map, The Nature of Maps, Wood and Fels argue that the relation between a map and territory exists through how cartography–as much as cartographers–“constructs the natural world” in relation to other sign systems, construing the relation of a ‘map’ to ‘territory’ by how maps inescapably make their subject ideological.  Taking as their case in point maps of nature, they argue the order of maps demand assent from readers through what they call the ‘postings’ and the relays that the map creates to the world it ostensibly depicts, and the new understandings of space it creates.  Wood and Fels argue “relays” in maps, tied to the texts inherent in them or positioning in books or  paratexts, which uniquely promote the construction of meaning, effectively organizing complex mental spaces to understand nature in maps, whose structure demands assent to create truth-claims about nature, and transform the space of the natural world into a structure by which nature is spatialized as known.  The Barbari and Rosselli views assert an ideology of the local, spatializing the city as it is best viewed and encomiastically celebrated as a microcosm, even though the “paratexts” by which one reads a map are left tacit for their viewers.

Yet the map does not begin from an empty space, so much as it is rooted in a space that is inhabited:  it indeed tracks multiple networks of inhabitation.

Oak 1871 Birds Eye View

Tempting as it is to argue that social space fills in the empty space of a geographic region, the maps of Oakland’s inhabitants suggest a remaking of the city’s social space–and present an image of the remaking of that space viewed from the ground up.  For rather than providing a fixed or authoritative transcription of space that promotes “a standard scientific model” that creates a “mirror of nature . . . through geometry and measurement,” as Harley wrote was endemic to the discipline of cartography, or invest authority in a single map, the variety of Google Maps templates to plot data from the US Census for the years 2005-9 create a set of multiple maps in themselves each provisional, which they invite viewers to act by ordering their content.  It is perhaps no surprise that, in an age when maps proliferate, and we are both regularly mapped and surrounded by maps, the appeal of the website is that it provides tools to select variables and determine geographic parameters about the city that we can know:  indeed, their interactive nature provide a shifting notion of a map as a graphic fixity.  Wood and Fells primarily examined the organization of space within the printed map, critically reading map’s insertion in printed texts and their relation to the semiotics of written legends.

The compilations of maps based on census data offer, at a far greater granularity than other maps, to divide space by variable criteria of income, race, or level of education to offer what might be treated as elements of a composite picture of the city’s inhabitants–from the ground up–rather than demanding assent to a given cartographical record.  In a sense, the interactive maps below start a discussion about the nature of mapped space from which one can begin to examine the city’s social space.  The interactive map creates an open text whose variables and criteria users can create.

They provide a basis to question, critique and re-evaluate question the dominance of stereotypical categories of local violence or gangs as relevant descriptors of the city, but provide a bit more complex picture of its social composition.  For the interest of these maps lie in how viewers map them as simulacra against their mental maps, rather than in their mimetic claims:  ‘simulacra’ since all maps are both filters of information that parse the relevance of social space and embody a coherent order of space, providing deeply social tools for reading.   Rather assigning integrity to the map as a unique document, we can understand its ‘social life’ through how each creates and constitutes its own social reality for readers:  the Google Maps templates offer a basis to refract socio-economic distributions in the city, rather than fetishize the authority of the given map as a form that commands assent; the familiar templates increase the improvised nature of the comparative mapping exercise.  But Matthew Block, Shan Carter, and Alan Maclean are also particularly inventive graphic artists in how they use of Google Maps–especially in comparison to how it is usually used by others.

The interactive maps created from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey provide tools to track social realities across the nation, and filters to view specific variables in each zip-code and neighborhood.  I’m interested how maps embody Oakland as a coherent entity, and in Oakland a test-case to examine maps as embodiments of space and to illustrate spatial divides, as well as to filter different aspects of social space.  The interactive maps devised by Block, Carter, and Maclean employ Google Maps templates to invite viewers to process the coherence and divides within data from the US Census in spatial terms, using data for the years 2005-9 to create multiple maps, generated on demand, that refract or mediate statistical realities in visual formats which provide compelling ways to embody and understand social realities from the ground up. The statistical “maps” map at stunningly finer grain that reality–by “Mapping America: Every City, Every Block,” as they boast–that use tools of mapping creative interventions to analyze the Bay Area and its inhabited landscape; the mapping forms offer tools more than vehicles to demonstrate variables of race, income, education, or presence of recent immigrants, offering alternative models by which the region might both be mapped and, by extension, surrogate realities by which its composition might be known.  As much as surrogate realities, they refract pieces of that reality that we must juggle and assemble for ourselves, less attentive to the semantics of the Google Maps frame than their content. One might compare them to conventional maps based on skimpier data, to which their detail and agility provide a sort of foil–starting from the graphic charting crime-density in the Bay Area based on the police blotter.

Berkeley:Oakland Crime Density

The map is surprising for how the area immediately around the campus is a thick blotch of indelible red, bleeding into its nearby areas and along Telegraph Avenue like indelible ink.  Most of this “crime” is based on calls to the Police Dept., including a significant number of calls about problems of noise around fraternity row:  the impermeable barrier both around campus can be explained by the different policing agency that supervises the university’s campus, and the boundary of the Berkeley Hills to the East.  Crime is mapped not only indiscriminately, but distributed to reflect the contours of public complaints, as much as actual crimes.  Although the red splotches and streaks around much of Oakland and focused in its downtown seems in keeping with the difficulty of maintaining control over the dispersive city, while around UC Berkeley are dense stains of intense crimson that corresponds to the frequency of calls that the local police receive near campus.  It is interesting to contrast the map to that of San Francisco–where a huge amount of crime is clustered in the downtown, near the Embarcadero, Tenderloin, and Mission and some pockets around Van Ness–in a broad field of relatively crime-free green.

SF Crime Density

And so, if we shift mapping forms to a sort of heat-sensitive map of the violence committed and reported, the hot-spots of Oakland are more readily apparent–almost as a diffuse miasma of violence spread over neighborhoods like a viral form whose trajectory is difficult to explain or track:  heat-sensitivity is an apt cartographical metaphor of the subject charted:

eastbay_violent crime

The map of hot-spots of violent crime provides a different picture, if a tragic one, extending along the city’s major streets deep into East Oakland.  One might ask how this maps onto the city’s racial diversity. Given common predispositions, it might make sense to reflect on the city’s composition with greater granularity.  Does violence correlates to the complex ethnic or racial distribution of the city?  or to income?  or to gangs, as often suggested?  The interest of the interactive maps lies how viewers map these simulacra against their own individual mental maps, as much as in their mimetic claims:  ‘simulacra’ since all maps are both filters of information that parse the relevance of social space, providing deeply social tools for reading.   Rather assigning integrity to the map as a unique document, we can understand its ‘social life’ through how each creates and constitutes its own social reality for readers. Aside from the heat-spots in West Oakland, race is not a determining factor in a clear a way at all, although the ethnic diversity of Oakland–a historically African American city with a rapidly shrinking number of areas dominated by African American populations.  It’s in fact striking that the greatest mix of black and hispanic Oaklanders in any neighborhood occurs on the edges of Oakland:  and that the island of Piedmont is the only area that’s white.


Census Block legend

The same data can readily be re-mapped to present a distinctly different picture of the city, emphasizing urban diversity, by using the US Census Bureau’s data from 2005-9, using the American Community Survey.  Block, Carter and Maclean exploit the Google Maps platform to embed Census data in color-coded terms, which shows small pockets of African American concentration by light blue, but relative integration with the greatest concentration of Asians near Chinatown downtown.  The below aggregates units of fifty people, rather than proportional composition, to provide finer granularity of the population and of each neighborhood in Oakland, if in a less than dynamic manner:

Race in Oakland Google Mapped

Oakland’s complex diversity might well be compared to the clearer clustering in other urban regions of the Bay Area, where whites are more concentrated in clearly bound neighborhoods, and Asians similarly concentrated in areas around Golden Gate park (Inner and Outer Sunset)–if with considerable overlap of Asian and Hispanic populations in the Mission:

Mapping Race across Bay Area

%22Greater Mission%22

Far more sharply defined geographies of racial separation define New York City, where property values create the starkly demarcated racial composition of  Manhattan, and concentrations of blacks in outlying peripheries in the Bronx, New Jersey, Queens, and Brooklyn, as well as part of Harlem:

NYC Racial Map from 20005-9 census

We see a different picture of Oakland if we look at outside racial self-identification, but examine economic diversity at a finer grain in its neighborhoods.

Back to the Bay Area, stark income divides define the landscape of Oakland in this map of median family incomes in the same dataset, more than race:

Oakland Household Income Mean

More specifically, the map reveals clear divides and income troughs where median incomes have sunk below $25,000, often reflecting food deserts and islands of an evil toxic brew of desperation, hungry desire, and distraction:

Below 25,000

For Oakland, the website Spotcrime employs catchy icons to track arrests (handcuffs); arson (flames); assaults (fists); burglaries (masked faces under hats); robberies (men running with money-bags); shootings (cross-hairs); thefts (purple silhouettes of men running); and vandalisms (green cans of spray paint spraying red), creating a detailed map to set off mental alarms in the name of a call to “know your neighborhood’s dangers”:

Assaults, Arrests, Arson, Burglary, Robbery, Shooting, Theft, Vandalism

Even if the violence and theft are predominantly in low-income areas, where the map dutifully foregrounds these impressive icons, doesn’t it remove a lot about what good happens in the same low-income areas?  After counting 1, 077 shooting incidents in Oakland in 2011 with 1, 594 victims of guns–the largest category among which (140) belonged to minors, and the greatest sub-group 16-year-olds (40) and 17-year-olds (38)–John Osborne used Google Maps to represent in a fairly schematic way the urban distribution of fatal shootings by neighborhood:

Shooting Map in Oakalnd 2012

The terrifying concentration of aggregates off International Boulevard, a major thoroughfare in East Oakland, past Fruitvale Avenue, the overwhelming majority of whose suspects are male.  In abstracting each as discrete, of course, the map is less successful underlying ties to both prostitution rings or drug deals, so much as a platform to make claims about gangs or organized crime.  The following map of victims of shootings reveals an even somewhat scarier density in the identical area of West Oakland:

Victims in oakland 2011

What kind of image of Oakland emerges?  It’s difficult to map it clearly.  One striking effect of the greater scale and definition of the maps based on the 2010 census is that the considerable proportion of resident immigrants in the city, which reveals a considerably high percentage–often more than half and up to 70% if not almost 80% in West Oakland, across from Alameda–of foreign-born residents, which demonstrates a considerable geographic mobility among residents that seems specific to the area:  Oakland has long been a cosmopolitan center that attracted the displaced to its margins.

Oakland Foreign Born Map

Immigration is not criminality, but suggests the margins of the city are where the displaced arrive:  displacement might be something of a thread in Oakland’s history, from the arrival of (far more wealthy) San Franciscans after the 1906 earthquake in Piedmont to the Chinese-American railroad laborers who settled downtown, the railway porters whose families created a large community in West Oakland from the 1880s, and workers for the shipyards, or rich communities of Eritreans, Africans, Native Americans (Lakota or Dakota), Hispanic, Hmong, Vietnamese, Somalians and Congolese who most live in cheaper housing and are likely to be taken advantage of in varied ways.  As of 2004, Oakland somehow ranked tenth in the US for the largest number of immigrants, according to the 2006 Census, despite a less vigorous local economy, and almost 30% of its entire population is foreign-born.   The margins of the city somehow remain greater and far larger than its center.

But Oakland remains known, despite this mobility, despite the presence of city gangs, a more deep-seated and almost endemic presence and prime descriptor of the city.  One can–and many do–blame gang-violence, or the competition for turf; but the violence is difficult to separate from prostitution and drug-related crime, not necessarily competition between gangs or gang-related activities, even though gangs do suggest a culture of violence.

Gangs in Oakland

Gangs are difficult to measure, although the intensity of turf-wars would seem to make it easy to use the map as an indicator of violence.

Yet if one looks at a broader map of “gangs,” the variables seem impossible to keep constant, even in a hand-drawn map of gangs in East LA from 1978 purporting to decode ‘insider knowledge’ about a topography of violence, but provides only the sketchiest of tools:


The difficulty of attributing meaning to the mapping of gangs is more apparent if one notes their widespread presence, given this–perhaps unreliable–map taken off of a “National Gang Map” which reveals a dramatic concentration of gangs and gang members in the Westernmost states:

National Gang Map

Perhaps their presence itself reveals an attempt to make meaning from life or to carve it out of one’s social terrain to the greatest extent that is possible. One compelling map maps educational attainment–with the brightest yellow indicating an inability or difficulty to complete High School at 70%–with less than high school completion hovering around 40% among families.

Education--Less than high School degree

In the Bay Area at large, the failure of education in the Foothill-International area is striking, and is doubtless also some degree of failure in socialization if not of public education, and maps a continuing challenge for the city’s School Board and public schools.

70% no HS Bzy Area

And a corresponding map of college-educated Oakland reveals a bounded drop in below 20%, more roughly characterized at 5-14% with a BA, with large numbers of closely bordering districts hovering between 5-8%:  this might be one measure of the cultural insulation and isolation of the region, if not a clear barrier to what is often described as an ‘achievement gap.’

College-Educated Oakland

Those empty tan regions are a measure of the difficulty of shifting a divide between different Oaklands, because it maps a cross-generational or at least temporal divide in the given area over time.  The heterogeneity of Oakland is nonetheless striking even in its inequalities, to turn back to map racial diversity of Bay Area generated in bright colors on the NYT website of Block, Carter and McLean, since it suggests a picture of considerable promise.

Racial Composition OAK in Bay Area

But of course a map is not a picture.   It is a picture of variability, which can shift depending on one’s chosen criteria.  In the distribution of income levels in North Oakland, aggregating incomes of twelve families reveals a telling integration of an income-mix more striking and apparent than the in the above demographic models:  despite a scattering of upper-income levels across this North Oakland area from Emeryville, across San Pablo, and up to Broadway Terrace and Grand Avenue, lower income levels are present virtually throughout the region, with the exception of East of Broadway, although Broadway provides a clear dividing line of high incomes and lower ones, and the 880 corridor below MacArthur dotted with light blue markers.


The color-coded map of relative incomes provides us with some possibly meaningful correspondences to the hot-spots in crime.  But I wouldn’t advance the sort of argument that maps crime–or gun-violence–onto variations in household income.  The pictures of the city offer limited tools that suggest possible sites of research that might help to connect these dots.  But they offer useful, ground-up mappings of the city’s inhabitants.

Processing the relations among inhabitants of Oakland offers a way to renegotiate your relation to the city as a whole.  Mapping is about navigating, as well as processing, a surfeit of information, and about making the connections among it, grosso modo, that exist.  The fine grain of the census maps provides both a corrective to our preconceptions, and the start of something like a more fair–and illuminating–map of the city’s social space.


Filed under Oakland, Oakland CA, open data, Racial Diversity, US Census